Recent Interview with Senior Associate, Nancy Roberts
knk recently interviewed publishing consultant, Nancy Roberts as part of knk’s continuing series of interviews with thought leaders serving the book publishing industry and its supporting communities. Ms. Roberts is the Founder and CEO at Umbrella, a technology firm that employs data intelligence to help businesses materially accelerate the progress of workplace diversity and inclusion efforts. Nancy is Head of the Technology and Content practice at Maverick Publishing Specialists, a global consulting firm specializing in the publishing industry. The Technology and Content practice is focused on content delivery and production processes, and helping clients assess publishing work flows and systems.
Publishers are underinvested in core operating systems
We asked Ms. Roberts to comment on what she sees as the most significant industry challenges. The answer, she observed, is that publishers, especially in scholarly and university presses, are generally underinvested in their core operating systems. Perhaps this was possibly acceptable in an analog world, but does not suffice at all in a digital world where there is no longer a point where content is final, and in which journals and subscriptions and chunking for example, make life much more complex.
Ms. Roberts is a staunch advocate of publishing-specific software, for similar reasons. She says that big-box generic systems are all about control, often for businesses that have a small number of highly valuable transactions, whereas publishing is diametrically opposite – publishers typically have a large number of low-value transactions, where there is a dynamic nature to content compared to more traditional industries with physical products and a need for the kind of control that don’t exist in publishing.
In terms of technology investment, Ms. Roberts suggests that there is a significant aversion to risk in publishing, particularly in the trade segment. If you couple this risk aversion with Ms. Roberts particularly astute observation that “discussion is often a substitute for action” in the publishing industry, and it’s no wonder that publishers are underinvested. There’s a general fear of technology, a mindset that is often found where the relationship between the publishing staff and the IT organization is still largely being negotiated. This is not the case in most other industries, she claims. There are exceptions of course, such as in academic publishing, where the community appears to be well ahead of the trade. Trade publishing’s concentration is mainly on consumer-grade technology targeted to improve the reader experience for example. She sees the industry having a binary approach in its evaluation of projects – they are either a complete success or a failure, and there is not often a willingness to take on risk with the attitude that failure represents a real opportunity to learn. The industry seems unable to take on projects without first conducting detailed research and intense risk assessments that in the end may not be possible or even accurate. One may also encounter a siege mindset of “pulling up the drawbridge” and defending when under attack, rather than simply finding a better way or a better business model. These attitudes need to change.
Ms. Roberts sees tremendous opportunities for breaking this cycle with AI and machine learning in the near future. There is a great deal of data at publishers’ disposal that can provide intuition rather than firmly-held opinion on many of these stiff challenges that publishers face today. There are still problems to be solved in AI such as ethical questions of perpetuating prejudice, but the data backs her up – AI is here to stay.
Nancy Roberts has a lifelong passion for literature and language. She holds a PhD on race and gender studies and as well as an MBA. Umbrella (https://umbrellaanalytics.net/), provides data-driven and evidence-based insights enabling organizations to make meaningful improvements in diversity and inclusion..
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